TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's foreign minister said Saturday he hoped that a final court verdict will lead to the release of two American men who have been held for two years in Tehran on espionage charges.
Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, have been held in Iran's Evin Prison since shortly after their July 2009 arrest after straying off a reportedly unmarked road while hiking in Iraq's northern Kurdish region.
A third American, Sarah Shourd, was arrested with the two but was released last September on $500,000 bail. She still faces the same espionage and illegal entry charges as Bauer and Fattal.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was the highest ranking Iranian official, though not the first, to raise expectations of Bauer's and Fattal's release.
Salehi told the official IRNA news agency Saturday that he "hopes the trial of the two American defendants who were detained for the crime of illegally entering Iran will finally lead to their freedom."
"God willing, the judiciary will provide the necessary information about this case in due time," Salehi said, adding that Iran's judiciary "is pursuing the case based on justice."
He didn't elaborate but his remarks were the strongest indication of what has been an increasing expectation of the Americans' imminent release.
Masoud Shafiei, an Iranian lawyer for the two said after a final court hearing last Sunday that the court will announce its verdict within a week.
Shafiei said he hoped that even if the Americans were found guilty, they would only be sentenced to time already served. He insisted the authorities have no evidence to prove espionage, noting that the area where the Americans were detained has a porous and unmarked border.
The Americans deny the charges and maintain they were only hiking in a scenic and largely peaceful area of northern Iraq near the Iranian border.
They say they mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall. While other parts of Iraq remain troubled by violence, the semiautonomous Kurdish north has drawn tourists in recent years, including foreigners.
The case has added to tensions between the United States and Iran that were already high over other issues, including Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
The U.S. government has appealed for the two men to be released, insisting that they have done nothing wrong. The two countries have no direct diplomatic relations, so Washington has been relying on an interests section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to follow the case.
Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Dannaie Fir, told The Associated Press on Thursday he expects the Americans will be released "very soon," describing a general sympathy for the two men, especially during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began Monday.
Pardons are traditionally handed down during Ramadan.
The three Americans are friends from their student days at the University of California-Berkeley.
Shourd, now 32, and Bauer got engaged in prison before she was released on what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said were humanitarian grounds following health issues.
Shourd is back living in Oakland, California; Bauer grew up in Onamia, Minnesota; and Fattal is from suburban Philadelphia.